It was my Dad’s birthday a couple of days ago, the 4th of December. Even though it has been over fifteen years since his death I still wonder what he would think about various things going on today……….oddly, I suppose, or maybe not, I have a silent conversation in my head with him from time to time. The conversation is one-way of course, but occasionally I have a feeling that leads me to think he is listening……or at least watching, perhaps enjoying a vodka rocks he used to drink or maybe giving me a little nudge when I am trying to figure something out………..at least my theory.
I told Kathy recently that I looked at the back of my hands and saw my Dad’s hands. I’m not kidding, I said as she laughed at me in her typical way………his wrinkles are there with mine! Our hands are so different in make up…….but I can see his hands in mine………..that old worn college ring he was so proud to wear………if I pulled it out of the old box I keep it in and placed it loosely on one of my fingers, the sight would probably make me quiver at the resemblance. It’s not just the wrinkles, but also many other things, both physical and behavior wise, that reminds me I am my father’s son. But I remember his hands so vividly.
It’s funny, my Dad always wanted to work with his hands………his father was a butcher. It wasn’t like there wasn’t a precedent for some sort of dexterity. But my Dad’s short stubby fingers just didn’t do what his mind wanted most of the time. His lack of manual coordination made for laughs at times when he worked with tools or needed to depend on his hands to get something done. One summer when I was little I can remember him painting the outside of the house and what seemed like the dozens of times the paint bucket suspended on a coat hanger below his body on the long ladder went tumbling into the grass or bushes below, spilled by the usual breakdown between his hands and his mind. Each time the event was followed words and exclamations that would make most cringe and my mother would shout at him through the window that the whole of Omaha could hear him.
Fortunately, in life he was a wonderful public servant, the sort of which that gets a bad name many times these days. To get there, with a bit of luck, he found himself in an influential educational program at the University of Minnesota in Public Health after his service in the military. The program, one of the first of its kind, formalized the idea that advances in medicine and health could be brought to the masses through government and government sponsored organizations and programs. Just after the second World War, it was still the days when “government” was generally still considered “good” and my Dad, the soon to be Kennedy Democrat, wanted to change the world for the better.
After his training, many of his colleagues went onto international destinations, places like the World Health Organization, to practice their advanced training. My Mother, couldn’t quite make a similar leap with him, but did follow his aspirations to the East Coast and New York City, where he started his long association with the American Cancer Society. But after several years and amongst a growing family, they eventually made their way back to the mid-west. Some of the earliest flashes of memories I have are of their last years in New York, a visit to the Statue of Liberty with his parents (my grand parents), the big front window in our house in New Jersey, the snowy moving day when we left and my first airplane ride to our new home in Omaha. I remember the little metal airplane the stewardess gave me on that trip in an effort keep me occupied. I couldn’t believe they came around and served drinks and food on the flight, it was so cool. That trip wasn’t all smooth, I was only three………I ended up throwing up on my Mom’s pretty black dress later on the flight (people dressed up to travel in those days)……airsickness or a bug, I don’t remember what caused it, only that it seemed like I was an adult before my Mom could laugh about it!
Having returned to Midwest, family was closer and perhaps day to day living was just more familiar for them. I suppose it was comforting in a basic way. Kathy and I moved back from a similar adventure of sorts in New York and so I can appreciate that comfort. That comfort is present in the food they ate and there was perhaps no more comforting dish that my Dad enjoyed than Beef Pot Roast. I made it on his birthday this year.
The first time I made Pot Roast, we were living in New York City and I craved the Sunday dinner my Mom would make when the weather was cool or maybe I just wanted our little apartment on the upper West Side to have that aroma that would hit you at the end of the day when you knew you were home. She guided me on the phone through the process, which isn’t complicated and like many things she made for the family, she concluded her advice, “remember, plenty of pepper”. Her instructions where not really precise and my preparation has evolved since that phone call thirty years ago, but the outcome is the same comfortable meal.
With perfect beef pot roast, you should be able to shred the beef and eat it with your fork and the potatoes and carrots should have a lustrous coating of beefiness that can only come about with the simple finesse of a slow braise with onions and a few herbs and seasoning. I rely on homemade beef stock in lieu of the beef bouillon cubes my mother favored and I add a little wine along the way to help with the braise, but most significantly, I undertake the overall recipe in a two step process which my mother would probably say complicates the concept and simple nature of the dish, but I like the depth of flavor I achieve and what I feel like is better control of the quality of the resulting gravy or sauce. The first part is a slow braise with chopped vegetables intended to flavor the meat and gravy. The gravy and braising liquid gets strained after this step and then the vegetables and potatoes, intended to be consumed with the dish, are added for the final forty-five minutes to an hour. This recipe easily scales up to feed what ever size crowd you may have. For detailed information, see the recipe here.
For the first part of the recipe, the tenderizing braise, besides the roast, you will need an onion, diced, a couple of ribs of celery and carrots, diced, a quart or so of beef stock, two or three cloves of garlic chopped, a tied bundle of herbs such as thyme or rosemary or a combination and about a cup of red wine.
I almost always choose a beef chuck roast for this dish. A two and half to three pound roast, after its natural shrinkage during braising will easily feed four adults. Initially, I brown a thoroughly seasoned (salt and pepper) roast over medium high heat in a Dutch oven with a little oil, searing each side and then removing it to a platter.
After pouring off most of the oil and rendered beef fat I sauté the chopped onion, carrots and celery until softened and just beginning to caramelize. To this mixture, I add the chopped garlic for the last minute or so and then the red wine to deglaze the pan. Once the wine has reduced a little I add the roast back on top of the veggies and add the beef stock and the bundle of herbs. I use homemade beef stock, which you can learn about here or utilize a high quality unsalted store bought variety. I add enough liquid to come up to just the top of the beef. I bring this to a boil and place the lid on my Dutch oven and place it a 325 degree oven.
I let this braise for a couple of hours until the roast is very tender. While it is finishing the tenderizing braise I will prep the vegetables I will serve with the roast. I usually add small boiling onions, carrots and potatoes. Choose your favorite varieties and try to keep them a similar size so that they will cook the same length of time. Small onions are easy to peel after a quick blanch in boiling water and a short rest in ice water. I like to peel the potatoes so they absorb flavor. For this preparation, I used medium Yukon gold potatoes that I peeled and then halved to keep them closer to the size of the carrots, which I ended up adding about fifteen minutes after the potatoes and onions started.
After the initial braise, I will remove the roast to a plate temporarily so I can strain the braising liquid. I will also skim any fat that has accumulated prior to returning the liquid to the pot with the roast and the vegetables I have prepared.
As my mother always advised, plenty of pepper at this point!……..and then back into oven for forty five minutes to an hour.
The dish is done when the carrots are tender but still have a bit of firmness. Out of the oven, this dish will hold in the pot while you get the balance of the table ready for serving. Make certain you adjust seasonings prior to serving. If you have not added liquid, the sauce will be reduced and somewhat thicker. If the gravy is not thicken to your preference, place the roast and vegetables on a warm platter and tenting them with foil, and boil the cooking liquid for several minutes to thicken.
Nothing as comforting as a platter of braised beef and vegetables, smothered in rich gravy. My Dad might not be listening, but he would most certainly be happy with the same old pot roast he ate most of his adult life………and best of all, the left overs are even better!